In Understanding Earworms, City Pages writer Tigger Lunney join forces with two University of Minnesota Musicology Professors, Alex Lubet and Peter Mercer-Taylor, to dissect and unpack the the most irritatingly catchy songs from every era of popular music. We take on the best songs, the worst songs, the songs that get stuck in your head and simply won't leave.
There's an entire cross-section of music I simply don't understand. It's not that I'm struggling with a genre or a style; I'm not asking myself. “Why did the artists make these creative choices?”
I'm not a struggling with definitions. I tend (critical bias alert!) to associate “pop music” with “overproduced, rarely transcendent stuff written by a crack production team" and “rock 'n' roll” with actual artists and bands at the creative helm. Yes, yes, sometimes this gets pretty blurry. For example: I think a ton of hip-hop is rock 'n' roll. I also think a bunch is pop. Guess which type I like more?
No, my question, my struggle is different. It's not “what is this song?,” it's “where the fuck do people actually hear this shit?” There exists, it seems, an entire catalogue of popular music — very popular, unit-moving music — that is exclusively heard in the background, piped in via satellite radio to fast food joints, waiting rooms, and casinos, anywhere someone is going to spend too much time in one place thinking about anything but music. (Trust me, no one has ever jumped up from a Whopper or a blackjack table to dance to their favorite jam when it comes on.)
Perhaps nothing embodies this more for me than Colorado's OneRepublic and their ear-burrowing track “Counting Stars.” It's not so much a song as it is an insidious weapon of mass destruction, orchestrated by mad scientists, that seems to say: “Had a terrible burger, a lousy trip to the dentist, or lost this month's mortgage payment gambling? At least you have this chorus stuck in your head.”
So, I turned to fellow Earworm decoder Dr. Alex Lubet to figure “Counting Stars” out, and immediately he was talking about Bob Dylan and Pachelbel. What do they have in common with this annoying little ditty? Insistence.
According to Lubet, “The slow intro with acoustic guitar only before the beat kicks in with the same 4-bar chord progression. The progression is occasionally relieved by an extension of the final chord, where the texture thins to lead vocal only, a recurrent device in the song.”
This is precisely what we hear, he says, in music's most famous folk and baroque pieces: “Four measures is a very short verse length, reminiscent of the similarly insistent Pachelbel Canon, but also 'Positively 4th Street.'”
Add with a basic but equally insistent drum beat that immediately associates itself with the most familiar rhythms of the last 60 years, what you have is a pop song rooted in the most familiar, primal associations. Says Lubet: “The steady, equal emphasis on all four pulses of both funk and punk alternates with the big backbeat on 2 and 4 that was characteristic of earlier rock, R&B/soul, and jazz, and was epitomized by Motown.”
Sitting on top of this insisitent foundation is a mishmash of stylistic references, borrowing from every possible genre. The piano and organ sound like popular indie rock from 10 years ago; the two breakdowns borrow from classic-rock radio — Lubet notes a similarity to “Uncle John's Band” by the Grateful Dead, while I hear “Old Black Water” by the Doobie Bros.
At the same time, "Counting Stars" has elements of new wave style staccato vocals, like the Pet Shop Boys aping '80s hip-hop. It all falls well within that 4-bar framework so the song never dwells long enough for the listener to identify anything besides pure pop efficiency.
All of this disguises that the song, both musically and lyrically, isn't straying too far from its earliest moments, instead doing what Lubet calls “the epitome of how contemporary pop works, tweaking formulas. There’s no instrumental break. It’s not riff-based like “Shake It Off,” but it mostly recycles short, simple tunes.”
All the way to the end, like "Shake It Off" and a million other pop songs before it, "Counting Stars" goes for an anticlimactic ending that tells your brain the song isn't really over. Instead of a complete rock 'n' roll thought, you have the perfect modern pop version of musak: a song that is so egalitarian in its pop hook recycling that you aren't expected to focus on it too much — you're just expected to be humming part of it after you get your teeth pulled.